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City of Ontario v. Quon


The defendant was employed by City of Ontario. The city provided the defendant with a pager, capable of sending and receiving text messages, to assist with his duties. Each receiving employee was notified that the city “reserves the right to monitor and log all network activity including e-mail and Internet use, with or without notice. Users should have no expectation of privacy or confidentiality when using these resources.” The defendant signed a statement acknowledging that he understood this policy. Although the policy did not explicitly cover text messages, the city made clear to the employees that text messages were to be treated as e-mails. Over the next few months, the defendant exceeded his character limit three or four times. Each time he reimbursed the city the costs. His supervisor, who tired of collecting overages on behalf of the city, obtained the transcripts of the text usage to determine if the city needed to amend its service plan. He discovered the defendant was using the pager to pursue personal matters while on duty. The defendant was disciplined.


Whether the government’s intrusion into the contents of the pager transcripts was reasonable?


Yes. Though the Court refused to address whether the employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the pager, it nonetheless found the government’s intrusion as reasonable.


The Court hesitated to declare that the employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy in this instance. “The Court must proceed with care when considering the whole concept of privacy expectations in communications made on electronic equipment owned by a government employer. The judiciary risks error by elaborating too fully on the Fourth Amendment implications of emerging technology before its role in society has become clear.”

Assuming that the employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy, the Court still found the government’s intrusion as a reasonable workplace intrusion. Quoting O’Connor, the Court held that a search “conducted for a ‘noninvestigatory, work- related purpos[e]’ or for the ‘investigatio[n] of work-related misconduct,’” is reasonable if “it is ‘justified at its inception’ and if ‘the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive…” The city’s “legitimate work-related rationale” was to determine whether the city’s contract was sufficient to meet the city’s needs. Its intrusion was limited in scope because

“reviewing the transcripts was reasonable because it was an efficient and expedient way to determine whether [the defendant’s] overages were the result of work-related messaging or personal use.”


560 U.S. 746, 130 S. Ct. 2619 (2010)

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